"Bullhead," the Academy Award-nominated foreign-language film from Belgium, is a dark, haunting and wholly original exploration of what it means to be a man.
Writer-director Michael R. Roskam's auspicious feature film debut initially looks like a crime thriller, full of shady figures making secret nighttime deals, with a tension and a seamy, muted color palette reminiscent of David Fincher. But eventually it reveals itself to be a character drama about the way the past shapes us and our inability to escape it, no matter how convincingly we believe we've transformed ourselves.
Matthias Schoenaerts gives a fierce and frightening turn as Jacky, a steroid-addicted cattle rancher who works out an arrangement with some meat-trading Flemish mobsters, only to try and back out when an investigating federal agent is gunned down. This sequence of events forces him to revisit a horrific incident from his childhood 20 years ago, as well as the people who were crucial to that pivotal moment.
Schoenaerts turns Jacky into a hulking beast given to volatile fits of rage; the performance calls to mind Tom Hardy's startling, muscular work in his own breakthrough film, 2009's "Bronson." The sight of Jacky curled in the fetal position in his sparse bathroom or shadow boxing in silhouette in front of a window after he's just injected himself with hormones gets a little repetitive, but it's always dramatically shot.
These moments also serve as a window to Jacky's true self. His jittery attempts to reconnect with his boyhood crush, a vibrant woman named Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), who now runs a perfume store in the French-speaking part of the country, are heartbreaking because he's so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin. He makes you feel the loneliness beneath his sad eyes and massive frame, his awkwardness and a desperate need to be loved.
Lucia is also a key figure in the event that damaged him as a boy. The other is Diederik (a creepy Jeroen Perceval), who was his best friend back then but now works for the mob - although as "Bullhead" reveals, alliances are fluid things and no one is to be trusted in a world where everyone is looking out for himself. This is also true of a couple of bumbling, French-speaking mechanics, who ostensibly are introduced to provide comic relief but feel a bit out of place.
But "Bullhead" does keep you guessing by lulling you in with a quiet suspense, which makes the punctuations of violence - some of which are quite brutal - seem like even more of a shock. Jacky warns us in voiceover off the top that we're all screwed (although he uses a more explicit word that we can't repeat here). That doesn't make the film twists and turns, or its powerful conclusion, any easier to predict - or forget.
"Bullhead," a Drafthouse Films release, is rated R for some strong violence, language and sexual content. In Dutch and French with subtitles. Running time: 126 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.